Bill T. Jones
“Speaking Freely” recorded May 8, 2001, in New York.
Ken Paulson: Welcome to a special edition of “Speaking Freely.” I’m Ken Paulson, executive director of the First Amendment Center, with a new program in a series called “Whitney Dialogues at the First Amendment Center.” Here to introduce our guest is a co-host for the series, director of the Whitney Museum of American Art, Maxwell Anderson.
Maxwell Anderson: Thank you, Ken. Bill T. Jones was born in Florida and grew up in upstate New York. He studied classical ballet and modern dance at the State University of Binghamton, where he began his relationship with choreographer Arnie Zane.
Bill T. Jones: The next thing I knew was that I, like a banshee, was roaring throughout this park, throughout flowerbeds, looking for coverage so that the bulldozer with the burning (Inaudible) could not get me. I woke up.
Anderson: In 1974, after living in Amsterdam, he cofounded the American Dance Asylum and in 1982 formed the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company with his partner, Arnie Zane, who died in 1988. Based in New York City, the 10-member company tours extensively, performing its repertoire of more than 50 works for audiences of approximately a hundred thousand each year in America and abroad. Jones is the recipient, individually and with Zane, of numerous awards, including two Bessies, choreographic fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, and in 1994 a MacArthur Fellowship. His company’s work is often described as a fusion of dance and theater. Jones says his work deals with the fear of difference. His work is also about the joy of movement and the issues of survival and triumph. As Jones has said, living and dying is not the big issue. The big issue is what you’re going to do with your time while you’re here. His memoir, Last Night on Earth, whose title was taken from one of his performances, was published in 1995. Last year, Bill T. Jones joined the NAACP protest against the flying of the Confederate battle flag over the South Carolina statehouse by boycotting the Spoleto Festival and canceling his dance company’s two-day engagement. He recently received the LAMBDA Legal Defense Fund Liberty Award. Jones has noted that speaking about his work could historically overshadow the work itself. We hope that’s not the case, and certainly look forward to our conversation this evening. Welcome.
Paulson: We’re delighted to have you here. As you know, this show is about free expression, and I’m curious. Are the things you can convey in dance you can’t convey in other forms of communication?
Jones: Well, I suppose that was the reason I became a dancer. I was an actor, or a wannabe actor, and … till one day I was encouraged by the university to come and take an … West African dance class. I walked into this room and there was, first of all, the teacher was a charismatic, tall man from Trinidad. There were drummers. But it … the students were the full gamut of, I suppose, everything that we would say was beautiful about the alternative culture at that time. Young, white, black, Spanish, Asian people, all there, as I say in my book, grooving on the rhythms. Or more than that, there was something about that much difference being in one space nonverbally. And we were bonding through rhythm and through the ritual of the dance. That’s one level at which it happened. Of course, there was the other side of it, seeing the work of Martha Graham. And I didn’t know much about modern dance, but suddenly these beautiful gods and goddesses who, because of their proximity to each other, could talk about sexual tension. They could talk about things like punishment, retribution. They could talk about honor. They could talk about death. And those things, I was wondering, how was this happening? And then my own body began to identify. And I would love to just run and jump. I said that I began to dance because I wanted to fly. So I suppose dance was a way of saying to me, come out, be free, be free. Now there came a time when I realized that dance had an incredible history, and that dance had been used by powerful people. After all, classical ballet was … was really sort of developed in the courts in France. And I thought, what is my relationship to that? So by asking those things to come into my body, those organizations and all, I was participating in something but I could also break rules. Once I understood that what “turnout” meant, once I understood what a pointed foot meant, then I began to think, what does it have to do with how we used to shimmy and shake to the jukebox? And what would happen if I force those two worlds together? Certain eyebrows went up. Ah! I have people’s attention. So there was a lot of … there were lots of things that were nonverbal about dance that if I had stood on a soapbox or ruminated on a page might have been a bit ridiculous. But being able to, at that moment, put them together was quite liberating.
Anderson: And in thinking about the … the kinds of passages you were just describing professionally, you’ve also focused on the concept of journey, journey being a big theme throughout your career. Can you tell us what that means to you and how that manifests itself in your work?
Jones: (Sings) “I’m just a poor, wayfaring stranger/A travelin’ through this world of woe.” Clap, drop. It … feels good to me. It was the way in which I was taught in early age to talk about what I later understood was an existential dilemma: who in the hell are you? Where did you come from and where are you going? So my mother said that we were God’s children. My teachers in school were saying that we were part of a multi-billion year experiment in creation on this planet. My own heart told me that I came from that man and woman who were frightened and … but going forward bravely, who expected me to do the same. My meeting Arnie Zane said life is a great adventure we should run out to meet, and we’ll hold hands and do it. And now it is a dance company of young people who come, some of them for one year, two years, three years, and then they leave. And then what’s constant? This desire. Now, I’m not … I’m not a very … cultivated Buddhist, but I think that desire is the sort of lynchpin of all the journey. There’s something out in front that keeps saying, “Come on, keep going. Keep going.” And I’ve tried to say that I can’t expect answers about anything else, but I can say this is true. And I believe that people who are … very different than I am can identify with that feeling, that I can’t say where I’m going but I have some idea of where I have been. And so my dance does try to evoke that commonality in people. We’re on a journey.
Paulson: As you generate ideas for your work, given what you’ve just described, have you ever found yourself blunting your creative ideas, saying, you know, “That … that’s an image, that’s an idea that … that won’t fly, that will be too offensive, will be too troubling?”
Jones: Hmm …
Paulson: Do you ever self-censor your own work?
Jones: You know, I do. And that’s one reason why I often rely on improvisation. I’m … I’m gonna trick myself, to get myself out there in a certain circumstance where the stakes are high. Now I dare you … ooh, go ahead and do that. And then you do it. And sometimes you wish, “Oh, I wish I hadn’t done that.” But what was the perverse impulse that made you do it at that moment? So yes, there is that feeling. There are times, however, when you think, like I’m saying now, I … I think a lot about what … my eroticism, you know? I have … I found that over recent years, the last 10 years, I have begun to encode in a classic modernist fashion …
Jones: … my erotic nature. Because I say that I don’t know if I want to trust the world with how I really feel it, how I really see it. You know those last Picassos where all … he just painted vaginas, vaginas, vaginas?
Jones: And they’re great art, oh, it’s wonderful, right. Ladies spread-eagled painted in all sorts of different … this was an older man who … that was his preoccupation, he painted all the time. But I was like, no way. I’m not giving that up right now. I used … there was once a time I would have done it. Now a lot of that I think is just … like, middle age, and the stakes are higher and not quite being as generous. Now I like to think that I’m brave, but I also want to be smart. And why am I telling you that?
Anderson: Well, we have the habit of prying loose this confession … I think you set up an interesting paradox about the media, and I wanted to return to that for a second. There was a story in 1998 in the Free Press, and the staff writer, quote, said, “Jones’ dancers are long on formal structure, but they always have a hint of anarchy,” which you have described, “lurking in them. He may talk of … of being artistically meticulous, but his work can be downright dangerous.”
Jones: Hmm …
Anderson: So I wanted to say, how do you feel about your work being called dangerous? Does that give you pleasure in part of what you’ve been saying to us?
Jones: I could … it’s an ego stroke to think that the … anything in the art world could really be dangerous. I’m … you know, it’s everything. Immediately when it’s out there, it’s co-opted, it’s given a media spin, it’s put in a category, it’s sucked dry. Next. You know? And I’m sorry if the cynicism peeks through, but I wonder when I … when we were doing “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and we were in Iowa City, and as you know “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” finished with a stage of naked people like … I wanted 52 naked people. I was bringing 16, the rest would be provided by the community. And when … I think the papers said, “New York Based Choreographer Bill T. Jones Comes To Iowa, Inviting People To Strut Their Stuff – All of It!” And that was on the front page of the news. The front page, not buried back there in the arts section. That was called “hard news, real news.” Right? And you know what? That said a … yeah, yeah, I like that. It … now, what happened was for the next two months or whatever, every day there was something, a diatribe in the paper, and somebody was protesting. Should we do this, should we not? Tickets were selling, people were there. The first … the first rehearsal when the community people came in, I remember I was so impressed with who they were. They were a librarian, a man who was a fireman who came in literally wearing his fire gear, he was late. “Sorry, I’ve been fighting a fire over in the other county, and only …” and they were there. And one man told me, he said, “You know, I’m a Republican. But I’m here to tell Jesse Helms to go to hell.” You know? So now, is that dangerous? But no, people felt they could … they could taste it. The transgression, they felt, “Ah, here is something that works for me.”
Jones: Now your very sophisticated art-world person, he’s probably thinking, “But was it very good art?”
Jones: You know? OK, now at that time they were almost inseparable from me because I was so exhausted with the distant, aloof impotence of classic modernism, and this idea if you’re gonna win the great sweepstakes that they’ll still be bickering over your work at Sotheby’s in another hundred years, right? That … (Inaudible) said, “Bill, you are in a time-based medium. These bodies we know. What is the fear in naked bodies? Obviously, there is the fire, boy. Go … go over there. And get average people, not the professionals. Get average people to come and do something extraordinary.” Now the structure has got to be there. It’s got to be handsomely constructed. It’s got to be thoughtfully lit and so on, because we don’t want people just to come out and, you know, let … let it all hang out. But I was inviting them to be part of an artistic ritual that could be dangerous. Their mothers and brothers and fathers and sons and daughters were sitting in the front row. I said, “This piece continues tomorrow morning over the coffee table.”
Paulson: If I could follow up on your point about … about danger, suggesting that it … it’s actually difficult to conceive of art being dangerous.
Jones: Which is phat, isn’t it?
Paulson: Yet … yet explain this to me. Why is it that for the last 15 years we’ve had an assault on the National Endowment for the Arts if … if art can’t be dangerous, what are these people afraid of?
Jones: Straw men. Political machinations. Pettiness. Stupidity. Should I say it again?
Paulson: That was good.
Jones: Yeah, yeah.
Jones: Now, yeah. I mean, OK. Now I … let’s be … let’s be clear about this. I have a 5-year-old. I walk into the (Inaudible). Now would I take it to a Robert Mapplethorpe … I walk in with my 5-year-old to a Corcoran Gallery and I see two men engaged in … in outrageous sexual behavior. A man is urinating in another man’s mouth. My child sees this, they fall down on the floor with an aneurysm.
Jones: They rush him to the hospital … I mean, OK, I’m … I’m joking. But … so what, my … the child’s (Inaudible), they look at me, and, “What … what is that?” You know. Now I’ve got to talk to them about human sexual behavior. Now did that … could that work have really hurt them? Now, OK. I’m … I’m a good Catholic and I understand that Andres Serrano has submerged a Christ in urine. I am … I’m gonna have bad dreams, I’m gonna go to hell, I mean, I’m gonna … Lord is gonna … I mean, what … would it hurt me? Now shouldn’t I go in a free country and talk to somebody about … talk to the artist, why would you do that? Do you know it offended me? You know … do you want to offend me? I don’t think any of the issues that we’ve been talking about … you know what I mean? Could I watch … OK, a snuff film, you know. Let’s say a child being killed ritualistically in an art work. I wouldn’t want to see it. But would it be dangerous? And that’s another question, the old question, does … does pornography encourage people to do the acts that they see in the pornography? And if the acts are violent, and I guess women would disagree with me, does it make people violent? I don’t think so. I don’t think that any art that I can … I’m trying to think of the toughest examples that I can of what would be … would it be dangerous, truly dangerous? Dangerous to dogma, yeah. Yeah. People who are trying to protect a status quo. Everything should … that’s why you’re here, right? That kid now, they’ve just seen this thing on the walls. Now Daddy and Mommy have got to find a way to introduce that child to the world of sexual … into … of sex. And even take a position themselves. Is that so bad?
Anderson: What are you looking to communicate to these audiences? Because part of what you’ve been talking about to us is your intentions. How does that connect with the people you’re trying to reach? Who are you trying to reach?
Jones: Hmm …
Anderson: What do you want them to walk away with?
Jones: Well, craft something that you believe in, that you think has ideas and life. Make it as seductive as it needs to be, to taste good. I mean, visual, eye tasting. And then offer it with generosity. Put it out there and let people have a go at it. And, if you’re like I am, then be willing to stand up and talk about it if you need to. And then have an organization that is sophisticated enough that they will find a way for you to make the next work, and just keep growing. That … when people walk in there, they’re … they are a window on a … continuum. I’m saying, look at this thing in progress. What does it say to you? What more can you ask, you know? I would love for them to all, as they used to say when something is so, ah, drop-dead chic, you know? You’re supposed … in other words, just to walk into a room and it’s so fabulous you … you just fall over. Yeah, you would love that, that they walk in and something you did was just so wonderful. But more than that, just walk in with respect. And can you see, get a taste of what … how his mind works and how his heart works? And you see a community, in my case, very important. This body … I’m in pretty good shape, but I got pains here. What is there in this heart now that can be communicated? Now this is the test of a modernist artist, particularly those young, screaming rebels. When the smoke settles, do they have enough craft, enough ability to communicate that they can then infuse or, if you will, infect (Laughs) others with their enthusiasm and their … their sensibility? That is what we have to put up with in dance. No, the paintings are not there on the wall. Somebody remembers how he talked about the back. Somebody remembers how he used time and space. And there might be some crusty old videotapes somewhere out there. But it’s in the mind and the body. It is person to person. And that’s what makes it high. But it’s also the thing that will always keep it rooted in the earth. The audience is asked to come into this dialogue.
Paulson: We can’t leave here without talking about one of your most emotional works, “Still/Here.”
Paulson: It … it provoked a firestorm in some quarters.
Jones: Yes, it did.
Paulson: And I have to believe that it provoked a powerful reaction from the audiences and from the participants.
Paulson: How do you feel about that work today?
Jones: Hmm … I wouldn’t make it now. I wouldn’t make it now. It was a work that, as I said about “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” it was so ambitious that it could not succeed but it didn’t fail. And when I look at the dance material in it, there’s good dance material in it. When I look at the work that Gretchen Bender did, I think there was something very inspired. She was feeling something. I don’t know if it all works, but it works well enough that I stand by it. It was a piece that the time needed.
Paulson: And for those who have not seen it, they incorporated video of … of people …
Jones: Of survival workshops with … that were people living with or having lived with a life-threatening illness. And in those workshops, I asked them to draw their lives on a piece of paper. It was an abstract … squiggle. And then walk it. I asked them to make gestures that said how they felt about their lives. We gathered these gestures almost … oh, a hundred and some of them. And then we learned them, the dancers in the company. And dancers, professional dancers, learned these gestures … transformed them by putting movements in the lower body with them so it became dance. And then we made this thing, music by Ken Frisell, where he just took testimonies alone … on a park bench. I just sat there, I couldn’t listen. You know, sort of trying to get at those moments when people were having a revelation. And then to make it something, as I said, not for sick people but for people who are well. And people always say “my brilliant work about AIDS.” That work was not about AIDS. As I was trying to say before, the work was about mortality and what we all shared. Thirty percent of the people in that were women dealing with breast cancer. A good portion of them were people dealing with various forms of cancer — prostate, cystic fibrosis, multiple sclerosis. And there were people in there with HIV. The thing was that somebody said, a writer in The New Yorker was saying that I was using my own status as a kind of license to make people … to manipulate people. And that, she says, thinking people, the only thing they can do is just … because she said I’m not interested, how did it go? In disenfranchised blacks, abused women, fat people, such and such, which is all things that she thought that I was … the menu I was promoting. I was just talking about marginalized people in general. She said I’m not interested in any of that, and therefore all we should do, and I encourage you to do, is just don’t go. You know? As she didn’t go. She didn’t go see it. She had made up her mind that I had, quote, “worked dying people into my act.” There were videos manipulated by a professional video artist, quite beautiful portraits that only happened at a few places through the piece, and … and at the end. Primarily, it was my transposing the materials from that workshop into movement. And the discussion that went on was a very important one that the culture had to have. What right does the marginalized, the singular, the minority, have to command the intellectual discourse of the culture? So I was on the cover of Time magazine. I was a lot of places. So if you see me as a symbol of HIV-positive homosexual man, I represent all HIV-positive homosexual men and now I’m gonna make this work that you as a good liberal are required to go to and to like, then you feel angry and oppressed and you say, “The hell with that, I’m not gonna have it.” That’s what was going on in that. And I was really offended by that.
Anderson: One last question, if I might, and it’s not 50 years ahead, it’s right now, it’s the next couple of years.
Anderson: What directions are you pursuing that are fresh for you, that are new for you?
Jones: Well, I am going to, as they say, take enough rope to hang myself with. I’ve been offered a commission or a collaboration, I’m sorry, with the Lincoln Center Chamber Music Society. Members of the Orion String Quartet, fantastic players, and other wonderful players. And we’re doing an evening which is going to be both with me and my company, Mozart, Late String Quartet 135, one of the most celestial pieces of music ever written, followed by a piece by a living European composer, Gyorgy Kurtag. You can imagine … a full movement 17 seconds long, and then there’s … there might be eleven of them and the whole thing is only nine minutes long. Very, very exciting, very acerbic, very aphoristic, very exciting. And then Shostakovich, a piece from I think 1932, entitled … “Prelude and Scherzo,” two short movements, an octet, and a company favorite. A company favorite, which is D-Man in the Waters to Mendelssohn’s Octet in E-flat Major. These are, at this time, formal works about the style that we are developing. Janet Wong, my rehearsal director, we spend hours talking about the way arms move, the way the hips move. The company is still quite diverse. I’m hoping that watching all those arms and hips and different uses of … of phrasing and intention that we’ll still be able to say something about the big questions we’ve been trying to talk about today, and that it’ll have a personal stamp and an authenticity connecting me to my past and the future.
Paulson: Thank you for joining us. The remarkable Bill T. Jones.
Jones: Thank you.
Paulson: And thanks again to Bill T. Jones, Max Anderson and the Whitney Museum of American Art for making this episode of “Whitney Dialogues at the First Amendment Center” possible. Please join us again next week for “Speaking Freely.”
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